Sleep and children: Supporting sufficient, good quality Sleep

July 16, 2020

“Sleep is the best meditation.” — Dalai Lama

Why is sleep so important?

Sufficient sleep is vital for health and emotional well-being.  Poor sleep over a sustained period of time has been linked to high blood pressure, obesity and depression. Children and young people who have regular access to good quality sleep have improved attention, behaviour and learning. Sleep deprived children have difficulty with mood disturbances and emotional regulation. In teenagers persistent sleep deprivation has been linked to depression and anxiety. The impact of poor bedtime routines on the family as a whole is also significant. Frequent arguments about bedtime, behavioural challenges such as repeatedly getting out of bed and difficulties getting up in the morning can result in conflict across the household.

What happens when you sleep?

The brain is not actually resting when you are asleep. Your brain cycles through REM and non REM sleep and this circadian rhythm supports healthy brain function. The brain consolidates learning that occurred during the day, supports metabolic function and recent research suggests that sleep plays a role in removing toxins. A simple way to explain the importance of sleep to children is to use the analogy of charging a battery. Children are familiar with the need to charge phones, tablets etc. so sleeping to recharge the brain is a useful visual analogy.

How much sleep do young people need?

Children: From ages 3 to 5 children need between 10-13 hours of sleep and from 6-12 children need between 9 to 12 hours sleep. So for primary school children aim to plan for 9-10 hours sleep every night. So when planning your bedtime routine think about what time the children need to be up and dressed and ready to go; in the morning and work backwards.

Teenagers: Generally teens need about 9 hours sleep per night, so practically speaking if their day needs to start at 7am, to allow for dressing, breakfast and school run, they should be in bed by 10pm. Does that reflect reality in your house? Probably not, as many children turn into night owls as they enter the teen years. Why? Recent research suggests that the circadian rhythm in teens is different to adults and they are less sleepy in the evenings but need more sleep in the morning. This research has prompted some scientists to call for school start times to be later for teens. This is certainly something that you should keep in mind if Autumn 2020 brings blended or online learning to schools and students don’t have to race out the door at 8am.

Bedtime Boundaries

Mum I’m thirsty”, “Mum I heard a noise”…

It is important to set clear boundaries around bedtime especially when experiencing bed-time resistance. Bedtime resistance is common and often there is less resistance about going to bed and instead it is resistance to staying in bed. It is very common and usually developmentally appropriate. In the very early years it is around issues of separation worries, then worrying about monsters or robbers and then worrying about school and peers and with the older teen often overstimulation due to blue light from electronics. Before implementing any change to a routine I always advise taking a few minutes to reflect and plan.

         Is your wind down routine giving sufficient time and space to each child to process the day? A bed time routine should take about 25-45 minutes. It should start at the same time each night and follow the same sequence each night.

         What is going on for your child? Often children wait until the business of the day is done before giving voice to their worries or fears, perhaps a new person in school, worry about Covid 19, frustration with sibling. It is very important that you give your child the space and time to be heard so they can settle down to sleep

         What are they trying to achieve? It may be time to review your bed-time routines, are they age appropriate? For siblings sharing a room, is there enough time between bedtimes for each child.

         Are you consistent? Consistency and clarity are essential elements of any approach to managing an unwanted behaviour. Are all adults in the house delivering the same message about bedtime?

Some tips and tricks may help with older children (3 +)

  • Monsters can be zapped with a bottle of magic spray at bedtime
  • Keeping a worry diary or journaling are good strategies for coping with anxious thoughts
  • Regular check ins at 5-10 intervals serve to reassure and can be helped with visual symbol like an egg timer
  • Reward charts and stickers are effective with some children
  • Losing ‘up time’ is another effective consequence, every minute out equals a minute lost ‘up’ the following night
  • A bed-time pass is another strategy for older children. A child gets a number of tickets for pre approved activities such as drink of water, looking for a teddy etc.

The decision to take a particular approach is one that must suit you and your family circumstances. Take some time to reflect on what will realistically work for you and your family.

Support Sleep by creating a sleep positive environment:

  • Electronic curfew- it is really important that exposure the blue light from electronic devices is minimized in the hour prior to sleep. The screen light has been linked to disruptions of melatonin production, which is the sleep hormone. Consider creating a charging station in a central area of the house and set a time for each family member to put down their device and place them charging.
  • Exercise and Fresh Air- Physical activity, playing outdoors in afternoon can really help with good quality sleep
  • Decide a bedtime- set a time to begin a calm and predictable wind down depending on what is age appropriate.
  • Bedtime Routine- Do the same relaxing wind down each evening in a logical order that moves from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom. So for example, a glass of milk in the kitchen, brush teeth in the bathroom, story time in bedroom.
  • Bedroom Environment- Take a look at your bedrooms. Are they conducive to peaceful sleep? Long summer nights and early summer mornings can make sleep difficult but blackout blinds or heavy lined curtains can really help. Even hanging two pairs of eyelet curtains together can mimic a black out lining just make sure that the curtain pole will take the weight. A comfortable bed and duvet that is appropriate for the season is helpful.

Want to find out more?

Check out my webinar on the importance of sleep, routine and tips to manage bedtime challenges with Jessica Kennedy @



Monitor on Psychology, July/August 2020, American Psychological Association

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